A Portrait of Generation X, the New Leaders of Today

by Edwin Quinabo

In the current age of information overload, one social phenomenon receiving scant attention is the rise of Gen Xers (those 41-57 years old) as the new generation now anchoring themselves at the helm of society.

From politics in the new governor of the state of Hawaii Josh Green to presidents of France, Britain and Canada to titans of corporations in Elon Musk and Michael Dell, there is a changing of the guard in leadership globally from Baby boomer to Gen Xers.

Locally, Filipino American Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is chair of the powerful Senate Ways and Means committee and is one among several Gen X political heavyweights.

Carrying on the torch of media professionals of Filipino ancestry, Annalisa Burgos is that news anchor and reporter often bringing to viewers hard news as well as human interest stories of Asia and the Philippines. Before moving to Hawaii, Burgos was news anchor and managing editor at ABS-CBN News, an international cable network giant based in the Philippines.

On the community and government front, Hawaii Filipino Chronicle’s (HFC) cover story alumni are still at the pinnacle of their careers – Jade Butay, who HFC interviewed as State Transportation director, is now head of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Luis Salaveria, who HFC interviewed as Director of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) is now Director of Budget and Finance.

In Hawaii’s top industry, the visitor’s industry, Joe Ibarra, General Manager of the Kahala Hotel & Resort; and in medicine and academia, the freshly appointed new interim dean of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) Dr. Lee Buenconsejo-Lum, both (also HFC cover story alumni) are among the prominent Gen X movers and shakers.

On issues of importance to Gen X leaders of today, Gen Xer Caroline Julian-Freitas Director of Communications & Community at Ulupono Initiative, a mission-driven venture of The Omidyar Group, that focuses on areas of local food production, renewable energy, clean transportation and better management of freshwater and waste, said climate change is among the top issues for Gen X leaders.

“Gen X leaders should continue to tackle climate change.  We are in a climate crisis so people and industries should quickly transition into using methods of transportation that emit fewer carbon emissions and use clean energy.  We should also accelerate creating a circular economy – reduce, reuse, recycle to address the impacts of harm being caused to our planet with single-use products,” said Julian-Freitas.

Climate change, social justice, building a green economy – are but a few issues high up the ladder of Gen X values; and areas they are navigating through in search of maximizing societal benefits.

Gen Xers play a critical role in the workplace today. Most of them have at least 20 years of work experience and are ready to accept the challenge of leadership as Baby boomers retire.

But before any forecasting can be constructed on what to expect of today’s Gen X leadership, to get a better understanding of who Gen Xers are and what shaped them and why – an exercise of deconstruction is a revelatory start, to go way back to Gen Xer’s formative years and the events that punctuated their maturation years.

Snapshot of Gen X upbringing and impact on work culture
Gen X predates the digital and internet era but was the first generation that facilitated their growth.  It is the first generation when women entered the workforce in masse, which spawned on the positive side women’s financial security and expanded opportunities; and arguably on the downside, it’s the first generation that saw the rise of divorce and high single parenting rates.

Gen X is the latchkey generation that had teens coming home from school to care for themselves. It is a time when Gen Xers cultivated their independence, self-sufficiency and flexibility – which learned behavior would stick with them in the workplace.

According to Pew Research Center, Gen X is known for being self-reliant, values independence and autonomy in their work.

Flexibility in all aspects of life, including in work is something they prioritize. Gen Xers seek work that provides them freedom to reach their goals, according to FamilySearch.org. Their unyielding requirement for freedom and independence (a carry-over from their formative latchkey days) is one reason why remote work has taken off, and increasingly demanded by Gen Xers when possible.

Government worker veteran: Delos Santos
Gen Xer Venus Delos Santos, a community liaison who has worked at the Hawaii State Capitol for over 20 years, said what “Gen Xers bring to the table as adults now, especially those who now are leaders of our communities, are transparency, an impatience for bureaucracy, a strife for policy that makes sense, and a search for why if it doesn’t.”

As someone who has been working for government dealing with many different issues and educating the public on the legislative process, Delos Santos said it [governance specific to lawmaking] can often be a very contentious and controversial environment to work in and that tolerance can be a tool to diffuse some of that contention.

She explains, “Tolerance is a very adaptive tool, which perhaps stems from the Gen X experience in early life. We were raised during a time of increasing divorce rates and blended families.

“Although my parents did not divorce, I was a latchkey kid, a Gen Xer who learned and rationalized things on my own and relied a lot on my peers. I was raised by soap operas and MTV. I did not have a tutor and pulled out my hair when trying to do my algebra homework. It was hard, but not the kind of hard where I had walk 10 miles to go to school, as older generations did. Learning from mistakes and growing from them will always be a part of every generation’s experience,” she said.

Julian-Freitas said, “Gen Xers grew up quickly and became self-reliant sooner without their parents around the house often. They witnessed their parents working long, hard hours to provide for the family.  Although parents were always working, they somehow were able to amazingly instill the value of hard work, determination, seeking higher education with humbleness in their children.  As a result, Gen X leaders are hardworking, results-oriented, entrepreneurial and independent thinkers, among other things.”

On Gen X parenting
What’s different about the latchkey generation to parenting today, Julian-Freitas said, “Gen X parents, tend to be the parent they never had – involved with school activities, perhaps stay at home instead of work so they can be there for the children when they got home from school.  Gen Xers also wanted to establish themselves with their career before settling down and having children.” Julian-Freitas has two children.

Delos Santos, also a mother of two children said of watching her children, the millennial generation grow up, they “seemingly were born magnetized right out of the womb, ready to take on the digital age, obsessed with social media, smartphones, gaming, and apps, making themselves rich moguls of tech, many still in their youthful days.”

She makes the point that home computing was born in Gen X. “We experienced its growth, development, spread and influence like wildfire in our day. Online college degrees are considered practical and valid now. What strikes me as a Gen Xer is that a college degree itself is no longer considered the holy grail of success. Granted, there are no guarantees in life, but the trend seems to be, to me, that people achieve phenomenal success without a college degree, and those that do excel at university, can never manage to convert this to career success, plus are now stuck with enormous student debt.”

Contrasting the Baby boom generation to Gen X
Delos Santos said, “working at the hub of law-making, climate change and the environment have been topics of discussion and legislation. There is a genuine interest for sustainability, alternate forms of energy, and almost a demand for lifestyle changes to conform with environmental benefits.

“And some blame the Baby boomers who made the acquisition of money a priority. They achieved the American dream–a steady career, a house, a car, and a family in the suburbs. They reaped benefits from low interest rates and inflated housing prices, which increased the value of their assets. They developed a here-and-now mentality that many say came at the expense of younger generations, like Gen Xers and millennials, who are now left to pick up the pieces and are now expected to find new ways to live in a resource-depleting world and survive.”

The Baby boom generation had the Vietnam war, Gen X also grew up while wars erupted in the Middle East. But unlike the generation before them that mobilized and saw activism as an agent of change, Gen Xers while in college were comparatively indifferent.

Baby boomers launched the flower power and peace movements throughout college campuses nationally. They had sit-ins and militant activism. College protests against the wars in the Middle East among Gen X were meek, isolated and hardly noticeable.

As young adults, Baby boomers were rebels and combated authority. When it became time to lead society, they’ve transformed to become dutifully institutional.

This linear transition is reversed for Gen X. They were yes-men and yes-women to authority as young adults and greenlighted whatever the Baby boom generation asked of them.

As adults, Gen X were the opposite of their predecessors — skeptical and keen at seeing through the political and consumerism propaganda spun by the Baby boom generation.

More important than the money-to-no-end and the you-need-everything-syndrome of the Baby boom generation, Gen Xers value balance in work, personal life and family life.

Again, such values could be traced to GenXers latchkey years and a willful effort not to have the Baby boomers’ work overload without being present for their family and children.

Gen X work trends
The first computer literate generation, Gen Xers are attracted to the fields of computers and management, Indeed’s Hiring Lab Chartbook shows.

Gen X is the most diverse generation that can fit into almost any job profile. Job specialists explain that’s because Gen Xers had experienced the most volatile work environments with the obsoletion of entire industries swallowed up by tech. That versatility makes Gen Xers the generation with the lowest retention rates, according to SurveyMonkey.

Profile of a Gen X leader in communications, Julian-Freitas
Prior to arriving at Ulupono Initiative, Julian-Freitas was the Sr. Communications Manager at the State of Hawaii’s Office of Enterprise Technology Services. Before that, she served as the Communications Director for Lt. Governor Shan Tsutsui.

Julian-Freitas recalls her childhood years dreaming of building a career in communications even before college.

“As a little girl, I remember watching the news and watching Filipina Emme Tomimbang [former TV anchor and reporter].  I loved listening to the delivery of the news and watching how video and words told a story.  Everything about it – I knew that’s what I wanted to be – a TV news reporter. 

“In college, I interned at a couple TV stations just to get my feet wet in the local TV industry so that I would be prepared when I graduated with my journalism degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. My 18-year-old self was very naïve to think that I would land a job right away upon graduation, not connecting the dots that it also would depend on whether there was a job opening in the small industry we had – three TV stations, at that time. Excited with a degree in hand, I soon discovered getting in at the entry level as an associate producer was tough.”

By the time GenXers grew up and entered the workplace, job competitiveness rose with an expanded workforce of women. While the struggle for women’s rights was started in the U.S. by previous generations, it was Gen X that saw most young girls thinking about and pursuing careers.

Julian-Freitas said she worked a couple of jobs, in public relations, teaching, government, while working to land an associate producer position at a TV station in Honolulu.  “I even applied at TV stations in Las Vegas the year my brother moved there. But in my heart, I had the desire to stay in Hawaii, to build my career and be part of my community.  It took a lot of patience, determination and drive to keep on trying after knocking at the TV stations’ doors a couple of times.”

Julian-Freites acknowledges the truism that timing can be everything. “I got my first break and taste in news when I was a part-time teacher at Farrington High School.  My lead teacher had a brother who was a senior producer at ABC News in Los Angeles. My assignment was to cover breaking news that the national news would be interested in, which rarely happens in Hawaii.  Sadly, the day I got my big break was the day the first mass shooting related to workplace violence happened in Honolulu.  I was standing next to my lead teacher when she got the call from her brother looking for someone to field-produce for ABC news.  She told them, I’ve got the perfect person and she’s standing right next to me.

“The rest is history.  I worked as a field producer for ABC news and covered several big stories happening in Hawaii.  I eventually got a job at KHNL News 8 and KITV.  After 10 years in TV news, I felt the demand of TV news was weighing on me in addition to the changing landscape of how stories were told. 

“More flash, more graphics to keep viewers’ attention. I felt the core values of what journalism was, were changing. The expectation of taking on more responsibilities (with the introduction of TV news on the web) coupled with very low compensation made me think about a new direction. I had to make the tough decision of leaving the business I really enjoyed.  But, owning a home in Hawaii was also my dream and with the pay I was getting, I didn’t believe I could save enough money to achieve it as I was watching housing prices rise and so far from reach.  I told myself, ‘Well, you made one dream come true.  Time to chase after another.’” 

Julian-Freitas looked to politics and government as her next career path.  “I minored in political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and I decided to see what it would be like working at the Hawaii State Legislature. I got hired for a session as a legislative aide.”

After working that session, Julian-Freitas jumped into campaign season as a volunteer for a candidate for Lt. Governor.  She gained valuable first-hand experience of what it was like to run a statewide campaign – from how much money it would take, building a network, support and grassroots campaigning and messaging, she said.

After that election, she got a job as the Hawaii State Senate Communications Deputy Director.  Shortly thereafter, she became director. 

After 12 years in government, Julian-Freitas said she still had a lot of growth in her career to do and landed at her current job at Ulupono Initiative, where she says she “continuously learns about how to make a positive impact in our state and finds solutions to the challenges we face.”

Gen X is the first generation to be open to having multiple jobs and careers. It could by a reflection of both their values and an increasingly instable job market as well, relative to the Baby boom generation.

Changes in communications and media
While Julian-Freitas has made career jumps in industries, she has stuck with communications and media. What she notices, “mass media communications have evolved into something other than reflecting the core values of journalism:  Truth and Accuracy, Independence, Fairness and Impartiality, Humanity, and Accountability. I think some people have difficulty discerning between what is news and fake news.  I believe the community will become exasperated with the current state of sensationalism, the incredible value put on ‘likes’ and ‘views’ on social media posts and fake news, that people will soon demand more accountability and accuracy in news consumption. It is then, we will start to see a shift back to old core values in the profession.”

Other Gen X leaders of Filipino ancestry: Florendo and Senaha
Julian-Freitas said there are many Gen X leaders of Filipino ancestry today. She mentions two: Leon Florendo and Bobby Senaha.

Florendo is a senior counselor at Leeward Community College Waianae Moku Education Center, a full-service education center located on the Wai‘anae coast.

Florendo said their mission “is to provide residents with an accessible, affordable, high quality college experience in a supportive and respectful environment.  He gives back to the community he grew up in — Waianae — as not just a counselor, but a mentor and role model.

He volunteers as president of Sariling Gawa, a non-profit that fosters cultural awareness, nurtures ethnic pride and empowers youth to develop leadership skills.

Senaha is the CEO at Blackletter Group – Strategic Branding and Marketing.  He is a Board Member, YMCA Honolulu; Board Member, Hawaii State Bar Foundation; and past Board Member, American Diabetes Association.  His clients include small Filipino-owned businesses and helps them to elevate their business with strategic branding and marketing.

Gen X is overshadowed by Baby boomers and millennials.
As of 2021, Gen X has the smallest population among all generations. The millennials have now exceeded in numbers the huge Baby boom generation. Gen X is even smaller than Gen Z, according to Statista.

Sandwiched between two of the largest age groups (between Baby boom and millennials), Gen Z has something to prove. And they’re now either at the top or close to it in most industries.

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